CEDAR FALLS – Taylor Hagen has spent the majority of her basketball career at the University of Northern Iowa backing up two of the program’s all-time greats.
If she had it her way, Hagen’s name wouldn’t be introduced with the starters prior to Friday’s 8:30 p.m. Missouri Valley Conference tournament quarterfinal against Southern Illinois.
It’s not that UNI’s senior center isn’t making the most of her role in the starting lineup. Instead, she’d much rather be giving a high five to junior returning all-conference teammate Megan Maahs during the pregame introductions.
Maahs’ ACL injury eight games into this season allowed Hagen to become a regular starter for the first time in her career.
“That was really tough for me just because we have been best friends for the last three years,” Hagen said, reflecting back on the injury that thrust her into prominent on-court role as UNI’s top available post. “It’s different because this is my last year. I would rather have her out there with me and be playing with her than what happened.
“As a player, you always have to be ready to step into a new role. You have to be able to adapt to different situations. This is just the cards we’ve been handed.”
Maahs’ injury is one of the crummy cards UNI (19-11) has been dealt throughout this season of adversity.
Fifth-year senior guard Ellie Howell – another former all-conference selection – missed nearly the entire of the back half of MVC play with an injury that will keep her out of this weekend’s tournament. Rose Simon-Ressler is another veteran who has missed half the season, while promising freshmen Kam Finley and Alyssa Iverson were also impacted by injuries.
“As crazy as it has been, this is probably one of my proudest teams to coach,” said Tanya Warren, who has coached UNI into three NCAA Tournaments the previous 11 seasons.
Hagen is one example of that source of pride. She’s playing the best basketball of her career.
UNI’s newfound starting center has scored at least 10 points five times in the last six games, knocking down an accurate mid-range jumper while mixing in post moves and a hook shot she developed through workouts with Maahs.
“Her ability to be efficient through the years offensively has really helped,” Warren said of Hagen, a 52.3 percent shooter from the field who is also averaging six rebounds over the past six games. “She expanded her ability to post and score with her back to the basket, and has taken a lot of pride in shooting the 12-to-15 footer with consistency. Because of that, she was ready to step in and do whatever she needed to do when Megan got hurt.”
Reflecting back, Hagen could have easily found herself in an awkward position entering her sophomore season.
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After the graduation of Keitel, the Blooming Prairie, Minn., native quickly realized the talent that Maahs possessed at her position entering the program as a freshman. Hagen struck up a valuable friendship with the teammate who ultimately would block her path to significantly increased minutes over a two-year stretch.
“Playing with Megan, we have different strengths,” Hagen said. “I think being her back-up was fun in the aspect that she learned a lot from me, but also I could learn a lot from her, too.
“She’s a very happy person and always brings positive energy. We went through multiple workouts together her freshman year and she pushes you to work harder than anyone. (Maahs) is one of the best post players in our league so being able to compete against her every day was great for me.”
Their instant chemistry was crucial during the 2016-17 season in which UNI compiled a strong non-conference resume and secured the first at-large NCAA Tournament berth in program history. Maahs started 25 games, averaging 24.5 minutes, 7.5 point and 6.7 rebounds. Hagen’s influence went well beyond the 14.4 minutes she averaged off the bench.
“She’s a great teammate, but she’s an better friend,” Maahs said. “She’d be the one that will take you by the hand and lead you down the right path like she did for me my freshman year. We connected on so many different levels.”
Perseverance is the word that comes to mind when UNI head coach Tanya Warren reflects back on Hagen’s career.
Like many who secure Division I scholarships, Hagen was a dominant multi-sport athlete in high school. The 6-foot-1 post set Blooming Prairie’s career records for points (1,551) and rebounds (914) while also finding success in volleyball and track and graduating as the Valedictorian of her class.
In college, Hagen continued to lead. Her brand of leadership took on a different form.
Both Maahs and Warren are quick to point out that Hagen has an amazing basketball IQ and attention to detail. She could recite how an opposing team defended a screening action in the first quarter at the end of game.
“She understands and breaks down things so well,” Maahs said.
That support Hagen offered Maahs early in her career has come full circle with Maahs supporting Hagen from the bench.
Hagen, who has one year of grad school remaining before beginning work as a speech language pathologist, joins Mikaela Morgan as leaders within a senior class that is the program’s only class to date to reach three consecutive MVC tournament title games. They’re one more victory away from an improbable 20-win season.
“It makes me emotional when you stop and really think about what this team has gone through and how those two have been the pillar of this team,” Warren said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and had a lot of extremely beautiful moments in this game, but none to date as meaningful as this group and what they’ve been able to overcome. It starts with those two.”